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The Estranging Sea
by [?]

“drag at each remove a lengthening chain”?

His mind leaped gladly to meet new issues and fresh tides of thought; he stood ready to accept the reasonableness of usages which differed materially from his own; and he took delight in the trivial happenings of every day, precisely because they were un-English and unfamiliar. Even the names of strange places, of German castles and French villages, gave him, as they give Mr. Henry James, a curious satisfaction, a sense of harmony and ordered charm.

In that caustic volume, “Elizabeth in Rugen,” there is an amusing description of the indignation of the bishop’s wife, Mrs. Harvey-Browne, over what she considers the stupidities of German speech.

“What,” she asks with asperity, “could be more supremely senseless than calling the Baltic the Ostsee?”

“Well, but why shouldn’t they, if they want to?” says Elizabeth densely.

“But, dear Frau X, it is so foolish. East sea! Of what is it the east? One is always the east of something, but one doesn’t talk about it. The name has no meaning whatever. Now ‘Baltic’ exactly describes it.”

This is fiction, but it is fiction easily surpassed by fact,–witness the English tourist in France who said to Sir Leslie Stephen that it was “unnatural” for soldiers to dress in blue. Then, remembering certain British instances, he added hastily: “Except, indeed, for the Artillery, or the Blue Horse.” “The English model,” comments Sir Leslie, “with all its variations, appeared to him to be ordained by nature.”

The rigid application of one nation’s formulas to another nation’s manners has its obvious disadvantages. It is praiseworthy in an Englishman to carry his conscience–like his bathtub–wherever he goes, but both articles are sadly in his way. The American who leaves his conscience and his tub at home, and who trusts to being clean and good after a foreign fashion, has an easier time, and is not permanently stained. Being less cock-sure in the start about his standing with Heaven, he is subject to reasonable doubts as to the culpability of other people. The joyous outdoor Sundays of France and Germany please him at least as well as the shut-in Sundays of England and Scotland. He takes kindly to concerts, enlivened, without demoralization, by beer, and wonders why he cannot have them at home. Whatever is distinctive, whatever is national, interests and delights him; and he seldom feels called upon to decide a moral issue which is not submitted to his judgment.

I was once in Valais when a rude play was acted by the peasants of Vissoye. It set forth the conversion of the Huns to Christianity through the medium of a miracle vouchsafed to Zacheo, the legendary apostle of Anniviers. The little stage was erected on a pleasant hillside, the procession bearing the cross wound down from the village church, the priests from all the neighbouring towns were present, and the pious Valaisans–as overjoyed as if the Huns were a matter of yesterday–sang a solemn Te Deum in thanksgiving for the conversion of their land. It would be hard to conceive of a drama less profane; indeed, only religious fervour could have breathed life into so much controversy; yet I had English friends, intelligent, cultivated, and deeply interested, who refused to go with me to Vissoye because it was Sunday afternoon. They stood by their guns, and attended their own service in the drawing-room of the deserted little hotel at Zinal; gaining, I trust, the approval of their own consciences, and losing the experience of a lifetime.

Disapprobation has ever been a powerful stimulus to the Saxon mind. The heroic measures which it enforces command our faltering homage, and might incite us to emulation, were we not temperamentally disposed to ask ourselves the fatal question, “Is it worth while?” When we remember that twenty-five thousand people in Great Britain left off eating sugar, by way of protest against slavery in the West Indies, we realize how the individual Englishman holds himself morally responsible for wrongs he is innocent of inflicting, and powerless to redress. Hood and other light-minded humourists laughed at him for drinking bitter tea; but he was not to be shaken by ridicule. Miss Edgeworth voiced the conservative sentiment of her day when she objected to eating unsweetened custards; but he was not to be chilled by apathy.